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Discover creator-in-residence Timothy Ely, artist, designer, bookbinder

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 6:00 am

by Erin Dodge


Artist Timothy Ely is our creator in residence at The Lab at North Spokane Library in October. He makes unique, lavishly painted and drawn manuscript books and limited edition prints. And lavish is not an exaggeration. You’ll find images of some of his manuscript books, which are works of art, at Abby Schoolman Books, and I’m guessing the books are even more impressive in person.

Timothy is also the developer of 21st century professional bookbinding tools and equipment and will be leading a bookbinding workshop during his residency as well as a discussion about books and their history.

While in residence, Timothy will be building books, working on manuscript pages, and doing a variety of activities that connect it all. You are encouraged to stop by The Lab during his days in residence to see what he is working on and ask questions.

Speaking of asking questions, I got the opportunity to do just that and learned about his perseverance in his education, his appreciation for libraries, and his love of written languages. I hope you enjoy this brief insight into the thoughts of artist and creator Timothy Ely.


Erin: What sparked your interest in bookbinding? Binding books by hand seems like it requires special knowledge and that perhaps its secrets have been lost to modernity. How did you learn bookbinding? What tools and resources are needed to create a books by hand? How difficult is it to learn?

Timothy: I made basic books as a kid in grade school. I had my own stapler, and a friend who worked at a large paper mill supplied me with paper that would last me for decades. In graduate school, when my interest in books and their construction became crystalized, there was no one around Seattle from whom I could learn these skills, so I began to teach myself. I received an NEA Visual Artists Foundation grant and with that resource took myself to England, Italy, and Japan in order to get that missing part of my education. Education is always inconvenient. My self-directed education was effective as the books I made gave me the leverage necessary to convince the NEA granting committee of my serious intention.

There are many specialized tools many of which have not been made since the end of the 19th century. This too is very inconvenient. I was often found combing junk stores for a lot of things or making them. There are only a few suppliers. I have built many pieces of equipment and sell them as well. When the industrial revolution became the norm for life, many venerable trades like woodworking and bookbinding were also industrialized to meet demand. In part this was a good thing, but it also diminished the craft and opulence of much of the work. You can’t work well if you are working fast.

Bookbinding is a very broad discipline with many variables. As a whole it is hard, but that’s because it has a lot of parts. As with cooking, there is a lot to know and it can take time to assemble the pattern language necessary in order to have a nearly complete picture of the process. Bookbinding is both hard and not so hard, depending on the process being done. Bookbinding demands focus and dedication and a willingness to not surrender.

Erin: Traveling to other parts of the world has played a part in your journey as an artist. What are your thoughts on your relationship with place and how that may or may not emerge in your art?

Timothy: Holmes once said that travel weakens the mind. Sometimes it does and other times it opens utterly unseen vistas. My travels are usually about curiosity and wondering what I will find by asking certain questions. I have visited libraries in many parts of the world and as books are a primary influence of my thinking, I am in debt to that force—the library—in the world.

I needed the year in England, not only to connect with the craft of bookbinding but to also interact with books, binders, and readers. One doesn’t knuckle through the world alone, and so a narrative supported by or reconfigured by a conversation with like-minded people is actually miraculous. Each encounter with a book or a person refines ones interaction with ideas.

An example is when a geologist friend and I go hiking, I request that he talk to me as if I were also a geologist. That way I hear the language fully and not deployed by his filters of what I might or might not understand. I get the full treatment.

Because I had a self-taught education in bookbinding (I read a lot!), my teachers never talked down but assumed a full level of comprehension. So when I discover a book in a library, I am not getting a synopsis. I am getting the complete work and in that I find discovery. I travel in the physical body to foreign climes and I travel deep into books of maps. Both means provide all the neural nourishment I require.

Erin: What is Cribriform? Would you share how symbols, hieroglyphics, geometry, as well as materials and mediums inform your art? What about the known and unknown?

Timothy: Cribriform is a term I assigned to a structure of drawing that I devised in 1970. Though it looks very much like a written language and is usually assumed to be Asian or a secret code, it is really a syntax of marks used for describing sounds.

Most letter systems can be assembled from a handful of marks. A line, a curve, a dot and their forms, if phonetic, conjure a sound. Cribriform shapes are not designed to have a sonic quality and so remain silent as the best codes do. What always happens (as I am well practiced at this) is that the cribriform looks so good and “real” (whatever that is) that viewers don’t believe me when I tell them it’s not an authentic language.

As for other languages, I am conversant in English but have great attraction to the scripts of other cultures. Symbolic codes, the writings of sacred texts, number systems, and how the systems are generated are of interest and have a place in my work. I am highly attracted to the idea of an aesthetic of the unknown: that is, when something lovely like calculus or Sanskrit are not understood for what they are but carry a visual syntax. I love the look of that which I don’t comprehend.

Erin: During your residency, you’re discussing “The Extraterrestrial Book” and a short history of books. What can people expect to discover during the presentation and discussion?

Timothy: People can expect a short history of how books work, where they came from, and how they have changed over the centuries. I will be showing examples of my own books and trace some of the historical forms that have influenced my craft. It’s going to be great!


Wednesdays, Oct 3, 10, 17 & 24, 10am–2pm


The Single Section: Beginner’s Guide to Book Arts

Make a basic book in this workshop, using fundamental bookbinding methods. Learn to fold papers, sew bindings, and generate the content to create a book form. All bookbinding materials are provided as well as some materials for drawing. Please bring along your favorite materials for drawing and writing to create your unique book. Registration is required. Adults & Teens

Saturday, Oct 13, 1–3pm  |  REGISTER ONLINE

The Extraterrestrial Book

In this discussion, Timothy Ely will discuss his imaginative encounter with UFO books at the library, and the effect of that discovery on his drawings and subsequent life as a maker of books. Ely’s one-of-a-kind manuscript (handwritten and drawn) books can be found in libraries all over the world. You’ll also hear a short history of books from medieval times to contemporary, along with a slide presentation. You can also examine models of book forms and other materials. Adults & Teens

Saturday, Oct. 27, 1–3pm

Erin Dodge

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